Lessons and Practicing

RA: I did want to say one thing, Laurie, that it is amazing that I can’t recall after I got over some of the bad habits that he wanted me to eradicate, I remember that most of the time I always seemed to finish a lesson on time. He was great at that. You know that that’s a talent, you know to assign a lesson and then have a student finish the lesson at the proper time. And, of course, one year I remember I used to have a lesson on Saturday, I think it was at 11 o’clock. 11:30, I was through. I always came into the room several minutes before, just into the studio at Curtis several minutes before the lesson, and I was all prepared and must be all ready. At 11 o’clock I started; 11:28 the next pupil came into the room, I forget I think it was Harold Gomberg now. And it was the same thing with him. He was quite ready, and at 11:30 I was through, and I finished what I had to practice or what was assigned to me. So, it was quite a marvelous thing how he could do this, you know, all the time it seemed, constantly. So he had planned the time quite well. You know you have eight or nine students in a row, if you run over, at the end of the day you’re two hours late, but he wasn’t. And you did get an awful lot.

I do recall several times, I suppose, he was quite tired, he’d sort of put his head on the piano and sort of lean over and I thought perhaps he was asleep, but he always woke up when I did something wrong, it seemed like, you know. So he wasn’t asleep you know.

And he was a great one for playing with imagination. You know, it seemed to me I would play an entire sonata and he’d only say one or two words, but it always meant so much. It’s hard to remember exactly, you know, but I remember the first little phrasing tip he gave me, he says, “Play those three little phrases – don’t play them as one; just play them as a question, answer, and conclusion.” I was so amazed at this. And little rubatos that he taught me; I mean it, he says, “Put a little on this note and whatever you put on you must take off later.” And these all made sense in what I was playing, you know.

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MS: Can you describe a typical private lesson with Tabuteau?

JM: Well, I would say there’s no such thing as a typical lesson with him. Things could go smoothly occasionally, and he could blow up on occasion. He would always start you out with a long tone. That was the basis of your playing.

JM: Then you would play scales in a few different keys, maybe scales in thirds in different keys. Then you played your lesson from Barret or Ferling and transposed into a nearby key. If you got through alive you left.

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MS: Can you describe a typical private lesson with Tabuteau?

JD: We always started with long tones, scales, and broken thirds. Then we had to play our lessons, which generally consisted of four exercises [from Barret, Ferling, or Brod]. Two would be new pieces in the original key. The other two would be pieces we played the previous week in the original key, now transposed to a different key.

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MT to DB: Scale exercises: At first go up 5 levels and back. Then continue up a Perfect 5th to reach level 9, after which you must breathe (i.e. exhale); then proceed back down the scale to level 1.

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MT: When playing scales, for sake of practice and to meet physical demands musically, breathe after every 9th note.

MT: Begin increasing the velocity of your scales every two weeks, eventually reaching mm = 120 and playing them as follows: detached, slurred, and articulated.

MT: Play scales and articulations every day, 30 to 45 minutes each. It takes a lifetime.

MT: My suggestions for a division of practice time: Play exercises for embouchure and wind for a half hour. Then forty-five minutes on studies, forty-five minutes on solos to develop style. Practice scales and thirds—staccato and legato. Practice Gillet Studies sometimes for the acrobatic embouchure. Play them slowly and always with line and purpose. Practice in front of a mirror. Make it look easy.

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LS: He lays great importance on the “Grand Studies” Nos. 3, 12, 15 and 16 in Barret.

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LVB: You mentioned Barret, what other music did you work on?

JMk: After Barret came Ferling. After Ferling sometimes you did Brod and sometimes Gillet. I can’t say too much for myself, I never even got through the Ferling. I’ve had to finish the Ferling book myself in order to keep ahead of my own students now. I don’t in anyways anymore need Marcel Tabuteau’s assistance to study the Ferling book, but, for instance, at one point, I guess in my second year at Curtis, we were doing Barret Grand Studies in the back of the book, and he decided that my articulation needed work, which it most certainly did. And the world stopped, and for the next two and a half months I would play those last studies in umpteen different keys with umpteen different rhythms. So, the fast C Major one, the one that goes [sings first few phrases] became for instance in D-flat [sings an 8th note followed by two sixteenth notes under tempo and all staccato]. Of course, at that tempo you never get finished. I would be coming down the second page absolutely dying, and this man was sitting in an arm chair at the corner of the room screaming at me at the top of his lungs, “Don’t stop, I tell you!” [Imitating Tabuteau’s accent]. The only way you could stop for air would be to commit some grievous musical error for which he would then say, “Stop, Stupid!” [Imitating Tabuteau’s accent]. At least it was a chance to get some oxygen back in your brains and some blood in the lips. But, I mean, that was the way he would teach. As I say, he would stop all of a sudden if he thought something had to be done.

JMk: I might mention that Tabuteau would never help anyone with orchestral excerpts of any sort. The only time that you ever got help with actual music other than etudes was if you were doing something in a string class or wind class with him. His idea being that he is trying to teach you how to make music and how to play the oboe and when it comes time to play, that’s your business and should be your work and not his work other than what he’s done already to that point.

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WR: We all had to go through the Barret. In fact, he could spend four years on the Barret book if you would like. You had to almost force him to start listening to solo repertoire, especially orchestral repertoire. Of course, I was interested in mostly getting his interpretation of the orchestral repertoire.

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LVB: Did lessons follow in a logical progression of complexity?

JMk: No, Tabuteau was a counter-puncher as far as teaching is concerned, in my own estimation. I used to think the most dangerous chair in Philadelphia after the electric chair in Harrisburg, or wherever it might be, would be a certain easy chair in a certain apartment in the Drake Hotel, where Tabuteau lived. We would all imagine he was sitting there of an evening fiendishly deciding what to do to us in our next lesson, because of something we had or hadn’t done and because of some comment that Madame Tabuteau had said or made about one of us, that he is not doing too well in French, you know, something like that. (Madame Tabuteau taught French at Curtis, and it was more or less “de rigueur” that the oboe students study French. Not all did. There were a couple of brave souls who refused to do so.)

In actual fact, I do believe that he was very thorough; he would see to it along the way that everything would be covered. But, when I say counterpuncher, what I mean to say is he would seize upon something that he saw, heard, or didn’t see or hear in your work when you were playing something, and he would pounce upon it and go into it in great depth. Stop the world right then and there and explore this thing. Of course that was very much a part of his own outlook towards preparing anything, that anytime you came upon a difficulty you would take it apart, you would reduce it to the most common part, take that little part, make a pattern out of it, make an exercise out of it, practice it all the way up and down the instrument until it’s no longer a difficult thing, but a fluent thing. –Sort of like the Cadillac Motor Company in the early part of the [20th] century when it became the first manufacturer to make parts that were interchangeable from one automobile to another – perfect enough to do so.

He would want to prepare in detail the working of any phrase in such a way that they would take care of themselves under the stress of performance. So, he would attack what he sensed to be a weakness or a weakness that cropped up or has cropped up too much, something he perhaps hadn’t noticed before, and he would take that and work on it. That would almost be a theme to the lesson; you really didn’t know what it was going to be, because you didn’t know what it was that he was going to hear in your playing that day. Now it is very possible, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised, if there were sometimes when he came into a lesson with the idea already preconceived, “I am going to get after this student for such and such a reason today, and it’s high time.” And he may have been thinking what he had heard in the previous lesson and decided that it was going to get done no matter what. And he would see that in your playing even if it weren’t there. If he decided to see it, it would be there; and it would be no use denying it whatsoever.

He would practice a passage sometimes or demonstrate how a passage could be practiced on one note to make the arch of a phrase on one note and then to take the variegated notes themselves and place them on that same line. So maybe a high note is going to be a little less and a low note is going to be a little bit more in order to take their proper place in that line, so that the line comes out with the same continuity as if you were playing one note repeatedly. He would do that with passages from the repertoire or anything. He would say, “I practice this this way,” and play the repeated notes in the right rhythm and with the direction and the inflection that he wanted and do that and make it sound quite convincing. Something is missing, but it is a very convincing statement in itself. And then add the other dimension by producing the real notes on that line. The whole technique of doing that with the wind is a rather complicated thing, and it’s certainly not something one does all the time by any matter of means. But, it’s something that one has to be able to do in order to be able to achieve certain things musically. It has to be in the repertoire.

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MT: I practice every day.